Will civil rights be under threat in the new Tunisia?

Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly will take its seats within the next two weeks to decide on the constitutional framework of the country. In a country that has known nothing but authoritarianism since its independence, only time will tell whether any of its politicians (Islamist or otherwise), will truly commit to a human rights agenda. There are, however, signs that the coalition of Ennahdha and certain secular parties that will be part of the governing coalition, could lead to the establishment of fundamental rights in newly democratic Tunisia.

The work of the assembly will be multi-faceted,  it will act both as a legislator and sitting government and as a committee to draft the constitution. One of the major preoccupations of Tunisians and the international community will be how it protects civil rights. Many have called for a bill of rights to protect the rights that were eroded by the previous authoritarian regimes.

The elections on October 23 were won by the Islamist party, Ennahdha, which claimed 40 percent of the seats in the assembly.  Ennahdha campaigned as a protector of Tunisian identity (particularly its religion and customs). It also worked to assuage fears that would not follow through on its stated commitment to human rights. Ennahdha’s opponents openly questioned Ennahdha’s true commitment to these freedoms. Reuter’s Andrew Hammond wrote last week that, to many conservative Muslims, Ghannouchi represents the most liberal wing of his party.

In the face of these doubts, the party, orignially an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has not wavered from these commitments following its victory last week. In a press conference on Friday, Rached Ghannouchi, the party’s founder and leader reasserted his party’s commitment to “the principles of freedom of thought, belief, speech and dress.”

While Ennahdha’s membership certainly represents a multiplicity of views, from conservative to liberal, Ennahdha’s leadership understands that its stance on civil rights issues will be under the microscope in the coming year, particularly by the G8, which has committed billions of dollars in aid to assist in the transition. In addition to external pressure, Ennahdha members were victims of egregious civil rights violations under the previous regime. Freedom of worship, assembly, and association were severely limited under Ben Ali, to the detriment of Islamists as much as anyone.

Enter Moncef Marzouki and Mustapha Ben Jafaar, leaders of the two major secular parties that have agreed to work with Ennahdha as part of a unity coalition, the CPR and Ettakatol. These two figures could hold the key to ensuring and codifying commitments to civil rights in Tunisia’s new constitution. Some background: Marzouki and Ben Jafaar were both prominent figures in the opposition to Ben Ali. Marzouki was the head of the Tunisian League of Human Rights and returned from exile after Ben Ali’s fall. Ben Jafaar also worked for greater human rights in Tunisia and is seen as a centrist reformer. Both campaigned as secular candidates, but unlike their fellow center left parties, the PDM and PDP, did not refuse to work with Ennahdha.

Ennahdha, deprived of an absolute majority, will have to work with the CPR and Ettakatol to advance its agenda. Ennahdha has reportedly already offered key posts to both leaders. This will be an opportunity for both Marzouki and Ben Jafaar to prove to their supporters that they can deliver on a centrist, secular agenda, while working with Islamists.

It will also be an opportunity for Ghannouchi to show to Ennahdha’s moderate supporters that their trust in the party’s moderation was well placed. Meanwhile, Ennahdha will be able to deliver some key victories on freedom of worship and dress to its more extreme members and fringe elements, such as salafists. There will be unintended consequences for many of the country’s liberal parties. Ennahdha’s commitment to freedom of dress has been reported in the west as a commitment to not impose the veil on women. But many conservatives in Tunisia will see it as a commitment to ensure that the niqab can be worn, a pre-election issue at the country’s universities. Civil rights and freedom of expression cuts many ways, as was so clearly expressed in the tense debate and protests surrounding the broadcasting of Persepolis following the elections.

The political horse trading that will ensue in the coming months could lead to truly big changes in the conception of rights in the Arab world. The governing coalition will have a unique opportunity to enshrine the most basic rights of freedom of assembly, expression, religion, and speech in its new constitution. Time will tell whether Tunisia’s new leaders will take this opportunity or not.

Tunisia’s Electoral Lesson: The Importance of Campaign Strategy

The Carnegie Endowments launched this week Sada, a news and analysis site for Arab politics. I’m proud to be part of their initial publication, with my latest article: Tunisia’s Electoral Lesson: The Importance of Campaign Strategy.

Ennahdha campaign offices like this one could be seen in even the smallest towns in the run up to the elections.

You can read the full article at their website, below is a sneak peak.

Tunisia’s elections last Sunday were won by the Islamist party Ennahda, in a contest with more than 80 political parties. Ennahda has claimed over 40 percent of the seats (90 of 217) for the constituent assembly. The remaining seats are divided among several major secular parties, minor parties that have performed well regionally, and (in a surprising turn of events), the Popular Petition party of wealthy Tunisian businessman Mohamed Hechim Hamdi (with nine percent of the seats). The victory can be attributed as much to its outreach methods as to the popularity of its message. Most political parties, the majority of which were established or legalized after January’s revolution, paid the price of disorganization and poor strategic considerations. In an election meant to level the political landscape, only Ennahda realized that voter outreach (rather than advertising) was the key to victory.

A thank you to all the staff at Sada for helpful comments and editing – and mabrouk (congratulations on the new site).

The day after Tunisia’s elections

The Middle East Channel at Foreign Policy just published my latest article on the Tunisian elections, The Day After Tunisia’s Elections. Here’s a sneak peak:


At 6:30 a.m. yesterday, the elections workers on Hope Street were scurrying and the army had taken their positions. My neighborhood elementary school was being taken over to hold the first elections since the overthrow of Ben Ali in January. A small group of voters gathered around the gates on Rue Amel (Hope Street) to cast the first ballots.

The orderly conduct of voters, observers, elections officials, and security personnel was a constant refrain throughout the day. Tunisians I spoke with almost seemed surprised that their bureaucracy could function so well. Hedia, a family friend excitedly told me, “The observers didn’t try and do anything — they just let us vote on our own.” Living in a country that has never held free elections, Tunisian voters seemed to surprise themselves by the efficacy of the process. Now, all attention will turn to the outcome — not just who won seats, but how the new assembly will be formed and where it will take the new Tunisia.

There were four great tests for the Tunisian election:  non-violence, turnout, pluralism, and fairness. Their success was anything but assured.



Gallery: Election day arrives in Tunisia

Tension and uncertainty battle hope ahead of Sunday’s Elections

I arrived at my local Carrefour this morning at 8:45. The parking lot was half full even though the store doesn’t open until 9. With my shopping cart I navigated my way toward the entrance with about 300 other folks, all waiting for the gates to rise. At 9 a.m. exactly, the race was on – first milk, then water.

Milk and water have been in short supply for months now, though the elections have exacerbated the situation. With food stocks low in neighboring Libya, many consumer products have been shipped over the border. Milk is especially precious as it receives government price subsidies. Although the Tunisian government announced emergency measures to import milk from Germany, consumers have begun to hoard products when they become available – you never know when they might run out. Consumer uncertainty about how the elections will be handled has aggravated the situation, as I witnessed this morning.

A day after the end of political campains, party flyers littered the shopping carts at the local supermarket

The scene at Carrefour is emblematic of the uncertainty many Tunisians feel before the first free elections of their lives. While the Tunisians I speak to are justifiably proud of their hard won right to choose their leader, they are anxious whether their fellow citizens will respect the vote and, perhaps more importantly, whether their elected leaders will work on their behalf.

In the final week of the election, I spoke to dozens of Tunisians who had yet to make up their minds. Though it’s not as if they hadn’t tried. In fact, throughout the dozens of elections I’ve witnessed in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve never seen an election this wide open, with an electorate that takes its responsibilities this seriously. Of course, we read everyday now that Ennahdha will win on Sunday, but the reality is that they are not expected to win over 50 percent, and the most recent polling data suggested that the majority of Tunisians were still undecided. A common thought I hear is, “I’ve narrowed it down to two parties, I’ll decide on Sunday.”

The other fear is that the elections could be marred by violence. The police and military have mobilized en masse, 44,000 extra police and military will be on the streets. However, as we have repeatedly seen during the 10 month transition since Ben Ali’s departure, even relatively small manifestations can have important consequences. While the media has played an important role in magnifying these events, it is also new and shocking to Tunisians. The police state of Ben Ali did not allow dissent, raising a false sense of cohesion among Tunisians. The January revolution shattered these illusions and Sunday’s vote will be the first legitimate manifestation of these differences. There is a real fear that the elections could open up yet bigger rifts between Tunisians.

And yet, despite these fears, Tunisians have already begun to head to the polls abroad. Good weather and a lot of positive energy may encourage reluctant voters to join their activist compatriots at the polls tomorrow.

Another under-reported story from Tunis – Marzouki and the CPR

Just a short note based on some interesting conversations I’ve had in the last few days. An interesting, and under-reported story is that of Moncef Marzouki. He leads the Congres pour la Republique party and was a longtime opponent of the Ben Ali regime.

Marzouki is widely credited with being determined and intelligent. However, he has made some critical missteps with the Tunisian electorate. The most widely talked about story among Tunisians is what he said upon returning to Tunisia after the revolution. He arrived and announced that he would be the next president of the republic. This came off as arrogant and opportunistic to a country that had just taken its destiny into its own hands. He was also criticized by secular Tunisians for having a dialogue with Ennahdha at a time when most secular parties preferred to ignore Tunisia’s largest party.

Marzouki and the CPR have gained followers in recent months. Through straight talk and a campaign that reaches a lot of voters that are turned off by the blatant partisan nature of the electoral campaign, his party could be a real surprise this Sunday. His party has never polled very well, but Marzouki pulls from a lot of different movements, which could mean that the CPR will receive a larger share of some of the undecided voters. As of the last polling data, undecideds accounted for 40 percent of the voting population. One interesting aspect, though decidedly unscientific, is the kind of people that support the CPR. They are often young, and they have hesitated between different parties across the political spectrum – from Ennahdha supporters to PDM supporters.

5 best Tunisian elections videos

Tunisian artists are having their day in the sun after the oppressive regime of Ben Ali. They have put their skills to work for the elections this Sunday to elect the Constituent Assembly. Here are my top five videos urging Tunisians to exercise their rights. I must say, this beats MTV.

Ben Ali Returns to La Goulette – a get out the vote video that shows Tunisians how close the return of dictatorship can be

Enti Essout – an all star cast of Tunisian singers encourages people to use their voice/vote.

Tunisia votes  – One of a series of videos from ISIE encouraging Tunisians to vote

No Woman has the right to work – From the Association of Tunisian Women, encouraging women to defend their rights in the elections

Tunisian Elections – Canberra Australia – The first Tunisian to vote in the 2011 elections is in Australia – ok it’s not artsy, but it’s touching

What’s the real story about the Tunisian elections? Hint, it’s not all about Ennahdha

For those who are following me on Twitter, you’ve probably sensed my indignation at the flock of reporters who have descended on Tunisia this week to cover the elections. About 90 percent of the stories filed so far are about Ennahdha. So how about another take on the elections?

First, the facts: Ennahdha, the Islamist party, has run an incredible ground game. I traveled across northern Tunisia last week and they were easily the most visible party. There is clearly lots of grassroots support and they are well organized, much more than any other party. But, the party never polled more than 40 percent in any poll I’ve see. In fact, mostly, their figures are about 25-30 percent. Given the voting system (proportional representation with last remainders), they will probably receive a slightly lower proportion of seats than their percentage of the vote. Whether or not that’s fair, they’re the rules of the game.

Against this reality, we have all the major newspapers (New York Times, Financial Times, Bloomberg, Le Monde, etc) running stories exclusively about Ennahdha. The usual questions come up, is the Arab world ready? is Tunisia ready? is the West ready? is Ennahdha telling the truth? can they be trusted?

These are fine questions to ask, but they conveniently ignore 75 percent of the population that is likely not to vote for Ennahdha! Let’s have a look today at these folks.

The PDP is probably the most widely known party in Tunisia outside Ennahdha. They have a good organization, and a lot of institutional support, but they have not been able to galvanize voters in the way Ennahdha has. A common complaint I hear is that they are the “usual politicians.” They are running the anti-Ennahdha campaign. They have said they oppose any coalition with Ennahdha and will look to lead a secular coalition. They have polled as high as 20 percent early in the campaign, but have not received that level of support in any recent poll. A lot of their support appears to have gone to Ettaktol.

Ettaktol (or FDTL, by its French acronym) is the main secular competitor to PDP. They surprised folks over the summer by polling in the double digits, overtaking PDP in some polls. Their platform is similar to PDP, but they have struck a more conciliatory note and have called on a national unity government, excluding no parties (including Ennahdha). This has been a key point in the last days of the campaign following a spat between the PDP and Ennahdha on forming a coalition.

A key to the election will be which party comes out ahead – PDP or Ettaktol. The latter could represent greater reconciliation, while the former would represent a rebuke to  Ennahdha. If either party polls greater than 20 percent it will be a real victory; under 10 percent would be a defeat.

While PDP and Ettaktol have taken the spotlight of secular parties, other parties do have solid grassroots support and could surprise on Sunday. The CPR, run by Moncef Marzouki, provokes strong reactions from Tunisians. He is outspoken, undoubtedly smart, and a shrewd politicians. In my experience, he’s a love him or hate him candidate, and only anecdotally, he  seems to garner a lot of support from young men (in the other major media narrative prior to the Islamists, these were the folks that started the revolution).

Afek is somewhat of a surprise as well. They have never polled very well, but they continue to work their ground game, even in places one would not expect a pro-business party to receive support. One of the big complaints of rural Tunisians I’ve heard is that no one comes to talk to them. Afek’s efforts to reach out may just surprise on the upside. If either of these parties receives more than 5 percent that will be a good showing and will position them more strongly in an eventual coalition.

The UPL is run by a successful business man and has good name recognition, thanks to a massive ad buy during the summer. I’ve witnessed UPL rallies that would be characterized as “astroturf” events in U.S. politics, meaning they stage their popular support. I would be surprised if the moves paid off in terms of number of seats.

Finally, there are the parties associated with former Ben Ali officials, el Watan and Moudabara. The latter is run by Kamel Morjane, who many suspected would take over for Ben Ali during his last days. He was seen as somewhat of an outsider to the regime, and not as corrupt as the other cabinet members. It is unclear how either of these parties would fit into a coalition, as most other parties have run on platforms that call on a complete break with the past. If they garner widespread support (above 5 percent), it could be interpreted in two ways – either as a call for a return to law and order, or as a wake-up call for the number of people who actually liked the former regime.

Finally, no polling has been conducted (as far as I can tell) on the Tunisians overseas. Of the 33 electoral districts, 6 are overseas. Over ten percent (1.1 million) of the Tunisian population lives abroad, mostly in Europe, in particular, France. Several smaller parties and independent candidates could do well in these overseas districts. It is assumed that the majority of electors would support secular parties, but this has not been backed up by polling data. It would be quite interesting, for example, if Ennahdha did well in France – most likely refocusing the results, to the pleasure of the French media, back on the Islamists in France.

These are just a few brief notes on the story one is unlikely to hear in the run up to the elections. There are lots of candidates, and lots of opinions in Tunisia. I salute any mainstream journalist who can show this side of Tunisia to the world. Three outlets are providing comprehensive coverage of the Tunisian elections in English, they are well worth a read: the GuardianAlJazeera, and Tunisia Live.

[Editorial note: Any commentary provided should not be construed as endorsement, see my comment on covering the elections .

This is my third article in a series of posts in the run up to the elections. See also, Will Tunisian Elections Really be Free and Fair? and Tunisians Get Ready to Rock the Vote.

Writing about elections without bias – and a thank you to Tounness

It has been a joy to write about the electoral process in Tunisia. Since June I have written over 30 stories about the process and the politics. I have especially enjoyed talking to Tunisians. Many have shared their thoughts and emotions with me in a way that many people from my own country would never do. It is heartwarming.

During these last few months, I have tried to maintain balance and not interject my own opinions. As we enter the final days of the campaign, I would like to reiterate the importance I put in staying out of the business of Tunisians. While I have been incredibly fortunate to be able to follow the politics, the elections are for and by Tunisians. Whatever your party, whatever your belief, this election is for you, the Tunisian people.

I remember casting my ballot for the first time. I did so at a local school in Minneapolis. I remember the strange sense of responsibility I had when I made my selection and cast my ballot. I am happy to witness this moment as an entire country has this opportunity to express itself.

I wish Tunisians the best of luck and thank you for your hospitality and openness. I hope to continue to learn from you in the months to come.

Election week reminder

The polls open for Tunisian elections in about 90 minutes – in Australia. For the next three days, Tunisians living outside the country will be casting their ballots in embassies, consulates, and community centers around the world. About 10 percent of the country is estimated to live abroad and 6 of the 33 electoral districts are overseas. On Sunday at 7 am, polls will open in Tunisia. Voting will continue until 7 pm. Election results are anticipated on Monday.

During this time, I will be on and offline, but I will be following all the events in and around the capital. You can follow me on Twitter for more real time updates.